Know Your Words · LRL Achive

The Dictionary: An Agreeable Companion

Dictionary Digger
A reference enthusiast of yore celebrates Dictionary Day way back when. (image in public domain.)

In honor of Dictionary Day, I looked at how the word dictionary was defined in in eight references published over a span of 79 years. Much to my surprise, the definition of the term  has remained remarkably steady over the years, although they do seem to grow larger as time progresses.


Webster’s School and Office Dictionary (1914)

Dictionary. A book containing the words of a language arranged alphabetically, with their meanings; a work explaining the terms of any subject under heads alphabetically arranged.

National Dictionary (1940)

Dictionary. A book containing all, or the principal, words in a language, with phonetics indicative of the sound of each, followed by definitions and other explanatory matter. See lexicon. [Late Latin]

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966)

Dictionary. [Middle Latin dictionaries < Latin dictio] 1. A book of alphabetically listed words in a language, with definitions, etymologies, pronunciation, and other information; lexicon: a dictionary is a record of generally accepted meanings, acquired up to the time o its publication. 2. A book of alphabetically listed words in a language with their equivalents in another language: as a Spanish-English dictionary. 3. Any alphabetically arranged list of words or articles relating to a special subject: as, a medical dictionary.

Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966)

Dictionary. 1. A book containing a selection of the words of a language, usually arranged alphabetically, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, etc., expressed in either the same or another language; lexicon; glossary: a dictionary of English; a french-English dictionary. 2. a book giving information on particular subjects or on a particular class of words, names, or facts usually arranged alphabetically: a biographical dictionary; a dictionary of mathematics [< ML dictionarium, lit., a wordbook < LL, dictio – word (see diction) + arium -ary]

American Heritage Dictionary (1969)

Dictionary. 1. A reference book containing an explanatory alphabetical list of words, as: a. a book listing a comprehensive or restricted selection of the words of a language, identifying usually the phonetic, grammatical, and semantic value of each word, often with etymology , citations, and usage guidance, and other information. b. Such a book listing the words of a particular category within a language. 2. A book listing the words of a language with transitions into another language. 3. A book listing words or other linguistic items, with specialized information about them: a medical dictionary [Medieval Latin dictionaries, from latin dicta, Diction]

Webster’s Dictionary (1971)

Dictionary [Latin: dicere, to say] A book containing, alphabetically arranged, the words of a language, their meanings, and etymology; a lexicon

World Book Dictionary (1989)

Dictionary. 1. A book that explains the words of a language, or some special kinds of words. it is usually arranged alphabetically. One can use a dictionary to find out the meaning, pronunciation, or spelling of a word. A medical dictionary explains words used in medicine. A German-English dictionary translates German words into English. A dictionary of biography has accounts of people’s lives arranged in alphabetical order of their names. From the time of [Samuel] Johnson on, the dictionary has been a conservative and standardizing agency from the spelling of the language as well as for its other aspects. Syn: lexicon. 2. a book of information or reference n any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged in some stated order, often alphabetical: a dictionary of folklore, a Dictionary of the Bible. 3. Figurative. any repository of knowledge or information: Life is our dictionary (Emerson). Abbr: dict. [Medieval Latin dictionaries < Latin dictio]

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1993)

Dictionary [Middle Latin dictionaries, Late Latin dictiondicta word + latin -arium – ary] 1: a reference book containing words usu. alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses < a general ~ of the English language> <a monolingual ~>–compare vocabulary entry 2a: a reference book listing terms of names important to a particular subject or activity along with discussion of their meanings and applications <a law~> <a~of sports>; broadly: an encyclopedic listing <a~of dates> c: a reference book listing terms as commonly spelled together with their equivalents in some specialized system (as of orthography or symbols) <a~of shorthand> <a pronouncing ~> 3a: a general comprehensive list, collection, or repository <a ~ of biography> <a usage ~> b. vocabulary in use (as in a special field): terminology <the ~ of literary criticism> c: a vocabulary of accepted terms <in the ~ of the French Academy> d: a vocabulary of the written words used by one author <systematic dictionaries of individual authors> e: lexicon

On one hand, the similarity among the definitions seems strange, as it’s hard to believe that there haven’t been new ideas about the dictionary in nearly 80 years. On the other, the constancy of the definitions mirrors the history of dictionary making itself. As E.L. McAdam and George Milne write in their introduction to Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection, “All lexicographers use earlier dictionaries, if only to avoid the danger of omitting some words by inadvertence.” Could that be the reason for the similarity?

I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know, however, is that dictionaries are so much more than just their definitions. The are friends … or at least “agreeable companions.”

To many people a dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and pronunciation. Yet what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status. — American Heritage Dictionary 

I concur! And with that, I wish you a Happy Dictionary Day!

To see more examples of all the awesome information available in dictionaries of all types, poke around this site! Don’t know where to start? Look at the list of previous posts or the tag cloud on the right side of the page.


Know Your Words · LRL Achive

Well Thank My Lucky Stars, That Could Have Been a Disaster!

stars_navigationThe other day, while reading a book titled “Callings,” I came across the following:

Being unwilling to bear the hurly-burly of faithfulness to our call, we court disaster—Latin for “against one’s stars”—and we end up agitated anyway. Although we have the choice not to follow a call, if we do not do so, the Sufi poet Kabir said, our lives will be infected with a kind of “weird failure.” We’ll feel alienated from ourselves, listless, and frustrated, and fitful with boredom, the common cold of the soul.

Being the “werd nerd” that I am, the armchair etymology in the first sentence of this excerpt caught my eye. It struck me as too perfect, too neat and tidy to be accurate, so I thought I’d check. Here’s what I found out.

Disaster, says the Oxford English Dictionary of Word Histories, is from the Italian word disastro, ‘ill-starred event,’ from dis- (expressing negation) and astro, ‘star’ from Latin astrum. Disastrous, from the same period, had the sense ‘ill-fated’ and is from French desastreux, from Italian disastroso (from disastro ‘disaster’).

“Aha,” I say! I didn’t think so! But before I get too full of myself, let’s get a second, third, and maybe fourth opinion, shall we?

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins seems to be on board:

The word disaster has astrological connotations. It comes, perhaps, via French desastre, from Italian disastro, this was a back-formation from disastrato, literally ‘ill-starred,’ a compound adjective formed from the pejorative prefix dis- and astro ‘star,’ a descendant of Latin astrum ‘star.’ This in turn came from Greek astron ‘star,’ source of English astronomy and related to English star. So the underlying meaning of the word is “malevolent astral influence.’

So does the hefty and poorly named Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, which links disaster to star and traces star back to “Greek astron or, rather Latin astrum becomes Italian astro, with compound disastro (Latin dis- connoting deviation), an event not favorable to one’s stars….

Even the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories supports this interpretation.

Stars_weird“[The word disaster] entered English from Middle French or Old Italian [and] owes its very existence to astrology. Old Italian astro is ‘star’; a disastro was due to the negative aspects of stellar influence.”

So, contrary to what Callings purports, disasters happen because of one’s stars, not because a person acted against them.

Okay, so that’s the skinny on the relationship between disaster and star, but from where did this idea that each of us has stars, lucky or otherwise, originate? To find out, I went straight to the symbol references on the LRL’s shelves, but they left me in the dark (get it?). So, I went with plan B and hit the dream dictionaries, which did offer a bit of illumination (sorry … kind of). According to these texts, stars have always been “guides” in one way or another, a concept which fits with this idea that they could be”ill-fated” or lead us astray and into … you guess it … disaster.

The Watkins Dream Dictionary:

Stars suggest guidance, not only in the navigational sense, but also in the form of the ineffable, given that the vast majority of stars exist outside … our human remit.

The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

The planets, stars, and constellations have been considered good-luck omens from the earliest times. Dreaming of them represents your wish to guide your own fortune, hence ‘wishing upon a star.’ In general, they suggest exciting new opportunities as long as you possess the necessary self-belief.

Dream Dictionary (Crisp):

Stars [represent] intuitions about the cosmos; the perhaps almost unnoticeable promptings or motivations which occur through life leading us in a particular direction [or] destiny.


Know Your Words · LRL Achive

The Truth about Phony

Hello Papercutters! I know, I know … it’s been a while. There was some (additional) Mother-in-Law interference last week, as well as some other stuff that kept me away from the blog. I won’t let it happen again! Honest!

Did you believe that, or did I come across as phony? You don’t have to tell me, but while we’re on the subject, let’s make phony our word of inquiry today, shall we?

Phony DJT

Phony is a strange word. Not only does our “president” like it (hence the tweet), but it has nothing to do with any of the “phones” that are out there in the world: telephones, homophones, microphones, headphones, megaphones. So what does it have to do with and what exactly does it mean?

We’ll take that last question first. As implied above, phony is often used as an adjective to describe something or someone as “fake, not real, or disingenuous.” It can also be used as a noun, meaning a disingenuous or hypocritical person, as in “That guy’s a phony.” But hey, don’t take my word for it, let’s go to the dictionaries!

American Heritage Dictionary:

phony (also phoney), adj. Informal. Not genuine or real; spurious; fake. n. 1. something not genuine. 2. A spurious person; impostor; hypocrite. [Origin unknown]

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language

phony, adj. [said to be altered < Forney, cheap jewelry < forney rings, brass rings made by a manufacturer named Forney for sale by street peddlers], [Slang], not genuine; false; counterfeit; spurious; fake; sham. n. 1. something not genuine; sham; fake. 2. a person who pretends to be what he is not; charlatan; imposter. Also spelled phoney.

Since Webster’s referred to it as “slang” rather than “informal,” I also consulted the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Partridge), which associates phoney/phony with “fraudulent, shady, criminal, unreal, and make-believe.”

PhonyObviously, there’s a lot of agreement among these references about the meaning of phony. It’s etymology, however, is a different story. We’ll get to that, but before we do, let’s (re)consider the president’s tweet. Putting aside the fact that “phony witch hunt” is redundant, his claim that jobs and enthusiasm are “way up,” just isn’t true. (It is true that the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since 2001, but the reason it’s so low is because a lot of people have left the labor market. Moreover, the rate at which the economy is adding jobs is well below expectations.) That would make his statement “false,” “spurious,” “not genuine,” and, you guessed it, phony. 

Now, about that etymology …

As much as I hate to disparage my favorite dictionary, it seems phony has nothing to do with a manufacturer of cheap rings named Forney. As the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins puts it:

phony. H.L. Mencken suggested that a mendacious maker of fake jewelry named Forney is the eponym behind this word, but no one else seems to agree with him. [Well, the folks at Webster’s do. – Ed.] The majority opinion is that phony is an alteration of fawney, British slang for a worthless ring, which itself derives from an Irish Gaelic word. The word, first recorded in 1890 or so, probably comes specifically from the fawney rig, a confidence game in which a worthless ring is planted, and when someone “finds” it he is persuaded by a “bystander” that he should pay the bystander for his share in the find.

Partridge’s etymological dictionary Origins tells a very similar story and, I presume, is the source of what appears in the Facts on File entry.

I’m Joe from the Lonely Reference Library, and you have my word on it.

Know Your Words · LRL Achive

A Brief History of the F-Word

F-wordI’ll admit it: the word fuck amazes me, and if you’re into words, language and the like, it should amaze you too. Not because it’s naughty or taboo, of course, but because it’s versatile! Think about it: What other word, low-brow and unrefined as it is, applies to so many situations and means so many different things? Even the ubiquitous shit plays second fiddle to it!

From ignorance (stupid fuck) to intercourse (fuck) and incredulity (what the fuck!?!) to exasperation (fuck my life!), the f-word is nothing short of fabulous in its functionality. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder: Where does this word come from and why does it have so many uses? Let us try to find the fuck out!


“Our word for the act of sexual connection may remotely come from the Latin word for the same, futuere, but [it] most probably is from the Old German ficken/fucken, ‘ to strike or penetrate,’ which had the slang meaning ‘to copulate,” says the Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. “The German word is almost certainly related to the Latin words for pugilist, puncture, and prick, through the root pug, which goes back to prehistoric times.”

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees about this verboten word’s German roots, but not much else.

“There is little doubt that it is of German origin, but it’s precise source has never been satisfactorily identified. All the earliest known examples of the word come from Scotland, which may suggest a Scandinavian source, related to Norwegian dialect fukka ‘copulate,’ and Swedish dialect focka ‘copulate, hit’ and fock ‘penis.'”

Not to be outdone, Eric Partridge’s etymological dictionary of English, Origins, offers a similarly unsatisfactory account of the word’s lineage in the most superb and roundabout way possible.

“That f**k cannot descend straight from Latin futuere … is obvious; that the two words are related is equally obvious. That it cannot derive unaided from German ficken, to strike, (in popular speech) to copulate with, is clear; it is no less clear that the English and German words are cognates. ‘To f**k’ apparently combines the vocalism of futuere+the consonatism of ficken, which might derive from fucken (only dubiously attested).”

I can’t be sure, but I think Partridge is fucking with us….


Well, if there isn’t a lot that can be said about the origins of the f-word, there is even less, it seems, to be said about how the word became so pliable and/or flexible. The only information I could find about how the word is used appears in Eric Partridge’s immense Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.

fuck, n.  1. An act of sexual connection.  2. A person (rarely a male) viewed in terms of coition, as in ‘She’s a good f.’ These two sentences are excellent examples of vulgarism, being actually standard English.  3. The seminal fluid, especially if viewed as providing the requisite strength (full of fuck, potently amorous).  4. In such intensive phrases as ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ fuck is apparently a noun.  5. See create fuck ‘to make a considerable fuss, usually in protest of something.’  6. See like fuck!, ‘certainly not!'”

Johnson with a fugh on his face.

This excerpt is by no means an exhaustive list, but don’t worry, Partridge has you covered. His Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists more than 50 entries featuring this most famous four-letter word as an adjective, noun, or verb. You simply must check it out for yourself.

A Few Fucking Facts

Beyond the word’s origins and use, several of the books in the Lonely Library’s collection contain some interesting facts about the f-word that I’ll share below, as well as a few words that are, or ought to be, related to it.

First and foremost, you may have noticed that in the excepts from Partridge’s works, fuck is not spelled out because, as he notes in Origins:

“F**k [and c**t] … are the only two words standard English words excluded from all general and etymological dictionaries since the 18th century and are the only two standard English words that, outside of medical and other official or semi-official reports and learned papers, still cannot be printed in full anywhere within the British Commonwealth of Nations.*”

[*Note: Origins was published in 1958.  It seems this is no longer the case.]

In a related item appearing in he Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:

“Fuck began to become more rare in print in the 18th century when human experience began to be disguised behind a “veil of decency,” and the last dictionary it was recorded in up until recent times was Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) in the form of f**k. The great Oxford English Dictionary banned it, just as it banned cunt (but not prick for some reason), and this made the word’s acceptance all the harder. … It wasn’t until Grove Press in America won a court case that permitted publishers to print fuck legally for the first time in centuries.”

In yet another related note, the Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk tells the tale of the word fug, which some writers used as a stand-in for the f-word.

fug. Fuck; a historical curiosity, popularized by Norman Mailer before it was safe to legally print the real word in full. It continued in service for some years after the ban on the real f-word began to be relaxed.

Finally, while searching the Lonely Library’s collection for “fuck” entries, I came across the following word in [Samuel] Johnson’s dictionary:  fugh, which could easily be used like fug, although fugh sounds more like the real deal — and just look at that definition!

fugh. An expression of abhorrence. As in, “A very filthy fellow: how odiously he smells of his country garlick!”

Loner's Dictionary · LRL Achive

Silence Is Golden … Isn’t It?

“Speech is silver, silence is golden,” says the proverb, but after looking into the word, I’m not so sure. This isn’t just a trivial matter. If you spend as much time alone as I do, you get used to it and, eventually, begin to prefer it to, especially when the choice is quiet or small talk.  Clearly, this is a minority opinion, for in my experience, when you opt for the former over the latter, people start to think there’s something wrong with you. (And maybe they’re right.)

Not surprisingly, this negative take on silence rears its head in definitions of the word. Consider, for example, the following list of definitions for silence from the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.

1. The state or fact of keeping silent; a refraining from speech or the making of noise.
2. absence of any sound or noise; stillness
3. a withholding of knowledge; omission of mention: as in, we noted the author’s silence on that point.
4. failure to communicate, write, keep in touch, etc.
5. oblivion or obscurity

Is it just me, or do things start to head south with the third definition? To see if this is a trend, I consulted another source, the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines silence this way.

1. The condition or quality of being or keeping silent; avoidance of speech or noise.
2. The absence of sound; stillness.
3. A period of time without speech or noise.
4. Refusal or failure to speak out; secrecy.

There it is again! How do we get from “without speech or noise” to “secrecy”? And I didn’t even include to use of silence as a verb, as in “to make silent” or “to suppress”!

To get a better idea of where this suspicion of the silent comes from, I hit the etymology texts. Alas, they were on no help.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories had little to say beyond silence comes from the Latin word silentium, which comes from silere, ‘be silent.’ (It also says the phrase “Silence is golden” comes from the early 18th century. [Not the proverb?]).

SilentiumThe (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins doesn’t have an entry for silence, but it traces silent back to the same Latin words. It goes on to add that, “it seems likely to be related in some way to Gothic anasilan, a verb which denoted the wind dying down and, perhaps, Latin desinere ‘stop’ (in which case the underlying meaning would be ‘stop speaking.’)”

Origins, the “Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English,” (which isn’t short at all), takes things a step further. It too traces silence back to silere, which it interprets as “to say nothing, keep quiet,” and links the word to both ana-silan, ‘to  fall silent,’ and the Norse sil, meaning ‘standing or quietly flowing water.’

Calming winds, standing or quietly flowing water … these are nice things. Surely the cold eye often cast upon the quiet must come from somewhere! Then it hit me, maybe this mistrust of the silent has more to do with the uneasy feeling some people (I’m looking at you extroverts) experience in silent environments.

According to the website, there is a word for this fear of silence: sedatephobia. According to the site:

“To some people, silence can be downright scary. There is term for this phobia: Sedatephobia. The word originates from Greek ‘Sedate’ meaning ‘silent or sleeping or dead’ and Phobos meaning the Greek God of fear, or dread or aversion. The phobia was relatively unheard of 50 years ago. However, today, it is … fairly common.”

Well maybe. I couldn’t find anything any other reputable sources on sedatephobia. It wasn’t mentioned in any of my psychology dictionaries* and the only other website I could find that acknowledged this “fear of silence” was and it didn’t give the malady a fancy name. (It just referred to the problem as “the fear of, or anxiety caused by, silence.”)

To be clear, I am not suggestion that everyone who prefers inane conversation to silence suffers from sedatephobia (or whatever it’s called). On the contrary, people are social animals and, clearly, some of those animals need more socializing than others. In fact, the only real issue here is, do they have to have their conversations around me?


* Supplemental Information

Although I couldn’t find anything in my psychological dictionaries about sedatephobia, I did encounter a few related terms in the Psychiatric Dictionary:

Eremiphobia – The fear of a lonely place or solitude.
Eremophilia – The morbid desire to be alone.
Eremophobia – The fear of being alone.

Loner's Dictionary · LRL Achive

The Patron Saints of Hermits

Temptation of Saint Anthony (Bosch)

Last time, I shared a few thoughts on the word lonely and how it’s (lazily) related to, yet quite different from the word alone. I even got into what it means to be alone (and lonely) in your dreams! There was, however, something about the lonely that I have neglected to mention: they have patron saints!

At least I think they do. It’s not entirely clear. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints (which, oddly enough, doesn’t contain a definition of saint as far as I can tell), there are no patron saints of the “lonely,” but there are patron saints of “hermits.” Given that hermits choose to live alone (yet recognizing that alone and lonely are not the same thing), I figured “close enough.” (How’s that for lazy?)

So who are these saints of the hermit set? Here’s the run-down according to the ODS:

Antony of Egypt – He sold all of his possessions at the age of 20 and went to live among local ascetics. From 286 to 306, he lived in complete solitude in a deserted fort as Pispir. Here he underwent “a series of temptations usually associated with the hermit life” [?]; at the end of this period, he left solitude to guide the disciples who had gathered around him. Later in his life, he moved to Alexandria, where he was reported to have worked miracles.

Giles – Not much is know about this guy, but the ODS says that he lived as a hermit near the mouth of the Rhone River. Injured in a hunting accident, he later became the patron of (and I quote) “cripples, lepers, and nursing mothers.” In England, “162 ancient churches” and “at least 24 hospitals” were dedicated to him.

Temptation of Saint Hilarion (Tassaert)

Hilarion – The son of pagan parents in Palestine, Hilarion went to Alexandria to study and became a Christian. He visited Antony at the height of his fame, then returned to Palestine where he discovered his parents were dead. In response to the news, he sold all of his stuff and then became a hermit at Majuma. His austerity drew crowds and he is said to have preformed miracles. To escape the masses, he moved on to Dalmatia. Eventually, his fame caught up with him and he went on the move again. He landed in Cyprus, where he lived the rest of his life. He died at the ripe old age of 80.

In addition to these fellows, there is another saint, Gemma Galgani. Although she is not counted among the patron saints of hermits, she is associated with loneliness — although not by ODS. On the contrary, her link to the lonely comes from a website that characterizes her as “The Saint Who Knew Loneliness,” so I thought I’d include her here.

Gemma Galgani (note the stigmata)

Galgani – Orphaned at the age of 18, Gemma Galgani wanted desperately to become a nun, but the convent of her choice wouldn’t accept her due to “a series of illnesses.” Word on the street is that she “experienced to the highest degree the isolation of loneliness” as a result this rejection, yet she kept it together and remained obedient and patient, and became renowned for her “heroic poverty.” (On the freakier side of things, she was said to occasionally experience the stigmata and also appeared to suffer diabolical possession.)


Additional and or Supplementary Info:

1.) Um, What’s a Saint?

In general, a saint, according to the Basic Catholic Dictionary, is:

“Any person known for Christian holiness; [or] in the strictest sense, a person who has manifested heroic virtue during his or her life and who is officially honored by the Church as one who has attained heavenly glory and as one through whom God freely chooses to exhibit exceptional generosity.”

Whew, that’s a mouthful. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church offers a better, more straightforward definition (of sorts): “The practice of venerating and invoking the saints … rests on the belief that the saints are both close to God (because of their holiness) and accessible to man (whose nature they share).”

2.) Okay, So What’s a Patron Saint?

Put simply, a patron saint is a “saint looked upon as a special guardian of a person, place, or institution” (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language) or “the guardian saint of any nation, place, craft, activity, or person” (American Heritage Dictionary). For what it’s worth, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church agrees and offers nearly the same description as the American Heritage.

The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature agrees as well, but has a lot more to say on the subject. For example, it is within its pages that we learn the word patron goes back to Roman times, where it was used to characterize a relationship in which “a Roman citizen, desirous of a protector, might attach himself to a patron, whose client he thenceforward became….” The patron, the book goes on to say, “was the guardian of his client’s interests, public and private; as his legal adviser, he vindicated his rights before the courts of law. The client was bound, on various occasions, to to assist the patron with money….”

If you’re wondering what all of this has to do with saints, keep going ….

“Patron, in time, came to be a common designation of every protector or powerful promoter of the interests of another; thus also the saints — who were believed to watch over particular interests of persons, places, trades, etc. acquired in the Middle Ages the designation of patron saints.”

Now you know.

Know Your Words · Loner's Dictionary · LRL Achive

I’m Back … and “Lonely”

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau: alone, but not lonely

The mother-in-law-related interference I mentioned in my previous post has run it’s course and I’m back at it. However, if there was an up-side to being away for that week or so, it was that being away from this blog gave me a little time to think about my reference library, this blog, how they fit in to my present state of affairs and what I want to accomplish.

The result of all that thinking was a subtle name change — what was once the Anachronist Reference Library has now become the Lonely Reference Library. It was the right move, and not only because the word “anachronism” doesn’t exactly mesh with blogging. The other reason behind the name change is that I spend an awful lot of time by myself, which I suppose makes me something of a loner, but not necessarily lonely, which has a rather somber ring to it. Be that as it may, the “Loner Reference Library” didn’t sound quite right, so I went with “lonely.”

It is in that spirit, that I thought I’d start this new era by examining the word lonely in my customary way. To the dictionaries!

To my surprise, the Oxford English Dictionary defines lonely in more ways than I anticipated.

1. (Of persons, their actions, conditions, etc.) Having no companionship or society; unaccompanied, solitary, lone
2. (Poetical) Of things: Isolated, standing apart; lone
3. (Of localities) Unfrequented by men; desolate
4. Dejected because of want of company or society; sad at the thought that one is alone; having a feeling of solitariness b.) (poetical) Imparting a feeling of loneliness; dreary.

Obviously, when speaking of things or place, there is little question as to what lonely means. Things get a little more complicated, thought, when you apply it to humans. Thus, to see if a little more knowledge might light my way, I reached deep into the LRL’s stacks and checked some other dictionaries.

To my surprise, they did. The Webster’s School and Office Dictionary from 1914 included the word “retired” with its definition and the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language offered the curious phrase “longing for friends,” which is something quite different from “want of company or society.”

Clearly, when describing people, the aforementioned sources deem alone and lonely to be synonymous, but are they? A self-professed loner (like me) might object, saying that when he or she spends time alone (i.e., unaccompanied), he or she is not necessarily lonely ( i.e., “longing for friends” or feeling “dejected because of want of company or society”).

To further complicate matters, I typically feel loneliest (in the sad, dejected use of the term), when I’m standing in a room full of people I don’t know and don’t feel up to the small talk (why yes, I am an introvert). In these instances, I don’t suffer from a “want of society,” but rather a want of escape.

Oddly enough, this co-mingling of alone and lonely may have an etymological justification, at least according to the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, which says “Lonely is a derivative of lone, itself a truncated form of alone.” Even more interesting is that, as the text goes on to say, the term alone is “simply a compound of all and one” and that, in Old English, it was a completely separate phrase, all ana, literally, “completed by oneself.” I don’t know about you, but that has a rather positive ring to it. So much for feelings of dejection.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that the most nuanced assessment of loneliness in my library comes not from Oxford or Websters, but (Cheung’s) Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

Dreams about being alone often refer to the solitary life you might be leading, but they can also refer to those time when you need to strike out in a new direction, separating yourself from your friends and family in a non-social context. To dream that you are alone in a crowd may imply that you are isolated from those around you, while being alone in a landscape may suggest that you prefer to make decisions by yourself. A dream of being an astronaut on a solitary space walk may refer to deep feelings of being alone or going it alone. If you dreamed you were alone in a garden or in the countryside, a more tolerable — even pleasurable — form of solitude may be being referred to. Finding  yourself alone as a child is a powerful image of loneliness, emotional vulnerability, and feeling lost.

So are alone and lonely  synonymous? Not when they’re applied to human beings, for as noted above, one can be alone but not lonely, or conversely, lonely while standing in room full of people. Or to put it another way, while being alone and feeling alone mean different things in different contexts, those who are lonely and feel lonely are experiencing the same thing–a want for companionship–regardless of other factors.